As always, when it comes to philosophy and theology, I like to start with a disclaimer that I’m not the most well-read on these topics, so I may stumble onto other people’s ideas without attribution. I may use terms that already exist, but in different ways. Also, I may stumble into traps with just as much lack of awareness. I’m intentionally vague in some areas because I don’t want to be liable for knowing the ins and outs of certain philosophies that I only know superficially.
When thinking about this specific topic, I was reminded of the beginning of Mere Christianity by CS Lewis. His book has definitely influenced this article.
I’m a big picture guy. I don’t like the feeling when I have a glimpse of a portion of the system, but don’t have an understanding of the system as a whole. This has worked both in my benefit and to my detriment in life. Math class was really hard when the teacher didn’t explain why the math worked, but only how the math worked. My learning curve as a software engineer was all that much steeper as I worked through all of the previously built functions of our product to learn how they worked rather than just trust that they’d do what their name implied. However, once I got over the hump, I was better at my job than my peers. My need to understand the big picture has been quite helpful in law… except where my manager needs me to just do things without understanding why.
This need for systemic understanding also asserts itself in my political, philosophical, and theological life (I don’t consider those to be three separate areas, but three expressions of one area of my life… my worldview). You all may recognize some of the consequences of my need for systemic understanding. For example, I don’t find pragmatism very interesting or important. How things are accomplished don’t matter as much to me as whether things should be accomplished. Once I have settled on policy X being good*, and movement in the direction of X is good and any movement away from X is bad.
* I’m using good and bad in the colloquial form. Below, as we get into the meat of this article, I’ll be using good and bad in a much more measured and intentional way.
Is This Really It?
The most basic philosophical question that I find interesting is “Is this really it?”, or , rephrased and reversed “Is there anything beyond the scientifically observable universe?” David Hume and Immanuel Kant, among others, basically said no. Most other well known schools of philosophers said yes, while building up a variety of different metaphysical constructs. We’ll come back to those constructs later, but let’s dwell on the question a bit longer and see if we can derive any practical applicability out of it. What does it mean for you and I if there is nothing beyond what can be observed and what can be reasoned?
Well, it can be used to build a foundation for morality. Let’s define a few terms to start. Morality, for the purposes of this article, is the framework used to determine whether a certain action/inaction is good or bad. Good is something that conforms to a certain moral framework. Bad is something that does not conform to a certain moral framework. Amoral is something that exists outside of the moral framework (choosing a color of socks to wear today, for example). Morality can usually be distilled into a set of first principles (i.e. foundational principles), which, in applied form, creates a worldview.
So, what does the absences of metaphysics mean for morality? Well, there seem to be three ways you can go: 1) nihilism – there is no morality; 2) normative morality – morality is baed on what is observed, felt, and intuited; 3) reasoned morality – morality is based on what is reasoned. For reasons I’ll expand on below, I believe that the first option is the only consistent moral framework in the total absence of metaphysics.
Let’s start with the second option, normative morality. My general impression is that most normative frameworks are light on foundation and heavy on post hoc rationalization of really shitty behavior. Setting that aside for the moment, let’s figure out what normative morality is. Generally, it’s a genre of philosophies that use subjective or objective observations of reality to set the basis for their moral framework. This comes in many flavors, such as Greek hedonism (whatever feels pleasant is good), relativistic postmodernism (good is based on lived experience), and utilitarianism (good is based on maximization of well-being). The first thing that strikes me about these “internal” philosophies is that they’re all fuzzy. They’re all based on a state of mind. While all of these philosophers would be on solid ground by starting every sentence with “I feel that . . . “, those who apply these philosophies make a fatal mistake when they expand the feelings of one onto all of humanity. The assumed egalitarianism is problematic. Taking hedonism as an example, what feels pleasurable to me may feel unpleasurable to you. As a trivial example, you may love the feeling of skydiving, and I may hate it. Is skydiving good or bad? The best we can say is that skydiving is good for you and bad for me in a hedonistic context. However, have we done anything by saying that skydiving is good for you and bad for me? Not really. We’re simply adding a layer of abstraction to the already assumed premise that skydiving feels good for you and feels bad for me.
What happens when add the complication of an action having impact on more than one person? Rape feels good to STEVE SMITH, but feels bad to his victim. Now we’re at an impasse. We can add in concepts like lived experience (postmodernism) to attempt to bolster the victim’s position in this standoff. We can even try to quantify good and bad (utilitarianism) in a way that STEVE SMITH only feels marginally better and the victim feels massively worse, but the problem still remains. At some point, where one group’s good feelings are directly connected to the bad feelings of another group, the first group’s infliction of bad feelings on the second group is a good as long as there are enough of the first group and few enough of the second group. A rapesquatch village can have their way with a single victim until the victim is tortured to death because the intensely bad feeling of being raped to death by a roving gang of horny cryptids is outweighed by the marginally good feeling that a rapesquatch feels multiplied by the number of rapesquatches that partake, whether that be 10, 100, 1000, or 10 million.
Finally, these normative philosophies give an overvalued weight to the subjective feelings and observations of a person. It doesn’t take much navel gazing to realize that there are people who feel and observe things that are not valid. Some of this is due to lack of information, such as when you get mad at the wrong person when you see that somebody took a bite out of your pumpkin pie while you were in the bathroom. Some is because your perceptions can be biased by your preconceptions, such as how every single hurricane is because of climate change these days. At the very least, it should be said that feelings and subjective observations have limited applicability outside of the person who has those feelings and subjective observations. What about the next person who has contradictory feelings and observations? Do they have a contradictory morality? What if a person’s feelings and observations change? Does their morality change? There’s nothing weightier here than one person’s whims. What we’re describing is a set of preferences and tastes, with the commensurate weight. “Good” and “bad” are nothing more than labels, like “fashionable” and “tacky”. Cutting through the rhetoric, I’m attempting to expose the fact that these internal-based moralities aren’t really moralities at all. They’re rationalizations for preference and taste built on the empty foundation of nihilism.
All moralities under the normative umbrella suffer from the “is/should” problem (this is why I called them “normative moralities”). Just because something is a certain way doesn’t mean that it should be that certain way. Ignoring the subjective aspects of the observer, empirical evidence doesn’t teach any moral or ethical principles. To derive such principles, one has to apply intuition, insight, or reason to the evidence. Now we’re falling into the same issue, these “external” moralities are really just “internal” moralities based more heavily on sensory input than on states of mind. While these sensory inputs are more strongly anchored in an objective reality than the observer’s whims, the influence of those whims are merely reduced, rather than eliminated. In essence, we have a set of preferences and tastes with the added weight of a relationship with evidence derived from the objective reality. It’s hard to get less abstract than this, because there are so many different forms of this type of philosophy out there. Utilitarianism often falls into this category. However, this is where the “is/should” problem comes in. How much more ethical weight does this evidence provide? Just because animals fight to the death doesn’t mean that murder is good. Somebody with the presupposition that nature is good would say that the fact that animals fight to the death means that murder is good. Somebody with the presupposition that nature is evil would say that the fact that animals fight to the death means that murder is bad. If we enter the analysis without presupposing the morality of nature, then the fact that animals fight to the death has zero bearing on the morality of murder. This is the crux of the “is/should” problem. The only time that evidence of a practice or condition in objective reality can be used in favor of the morality of the practice or condition is when you presuppose that nature is moral, which is . . . metaphysics! Observational moralities have to be built on a metaphysical foundation in order to be coherent.
This leads directly into reasoned moralities. Reasoned moralities, despite being vaunted due to the application of reason, are also normative moralities, with all the same faults and flaws. Reason is really good at applying an existing moral framework. “If A then B” works really good at proving B if A is presupposed, but just like before, you have to presuppose something in order for reason to be applied. In parallel to above, if reason can be used in favor of the morality of B when you presuppose A, the presupposition of A is . . . metaphysics! Without some sort of supernatural principle/framework/entity/etc that supports A, your reasoned morality is built on the same nihilism as the other forms of normative moralities.
Another way to view the inherent shortcomings in these normative moralities is to view them through the lens of authority. Why should I conform to your morality? Why should you conform to your morality? If the answer, when you get to the foundation, is “because it makes me feel good”, then morality is nothing more than etiquette or preference. This is true whether the morality is a simple hedonism, or whether it is couched in much more complexity, such as Darwinist morality (good is to evolve). To attribute any more weight to good feelings than mere preference or taste is an exercise in indulging one’s ego.
To finish out this first edition of trashy’s sophomoric blatherings, I’ll address nihilism. Nihilism, in my opinion, is one of two self-consistent moral frameworks. The other is moral absolutism based on divine natural law. We’ll obviously dive into more detail on that later. However, nihilism also has some weaknesses. One is that most humans seem to have some sort of moral compass/conscience, and the conscience is essential to their being. People who override their conscience tend to accumulate undesirable consequences in their lives. Sure, much of that may be explained by the “morality as etiquette” model (socially, poor etiquette results in negative social consequences). However, there’s something profoundly disturbing to most humans about living in a world where there is no right and no wrong, and where nothing means anything. People stare into the abyss and become profoundly afraid. I don’t think I’ve met a single person who has been able to retain a truly nihilist view for a significant period of time. Usually, their nihilism evolves into a squishy moral relativism or into existentialism.
Clearly, if we are to reject all metaphysics as a moral foundation, we’re choosing to dive headfirst into the abyss. That may be a satisfactory answer for a select few, but the next article will address the alternative, the various metaphysical constructs that can serve as a foundation for morality.